I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
As Alfred Hitchcock once observed: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." On Corporation Street, a world premiere, opens with the actors assembling on stage and striking poses like shop-window mannequins. Behind them is a Ford cargo truck, glowing with an intense light. With the benefit of hindsight we, the audience, know that the truck will soon explode, with a 3,300lb bomb and Manchester will remember 15th June 1996 as the day the IRA blew apart the city centre.
John Cronin (background) and Liam Heslin. Photo by Graeme Cooper.
Sound Designer Carl Kennedy underpins the opening of ANU productions new drama with a soundtrack, which combines a lament with a pulsing beat of anticipation. Despite the compelling quality of all this, those of us who've enjoyed - or maybe been the victims of - previous productions by this Dublin-based company (Angel Meadow in my case), might be starting to think that sitting quietly in a theatre seat is a bit of an anticlimax. But sure enough, we are soon told to leave the auditorium because of an 'emergency evacuation'.
The group I am in, is then led to one of HOME's five cinemas where we watch a documentary about the day of the bomb, with the screen split into a triptych. Again, just as it's all beginning to feel a bit too conventional and cosy, an actor bursts in (Liam Heslin) in the role of an IRA member, an ardent republican or maybe even the bomber himself. He aggressively confronts us about our preconceptions, or maybe what he thinks our preconceptions are, before leading us of to a storeroom.
Angel Meadow had the advantage for director Louise Lowe of taking place in a disused Ancoats pub, where a sense of entrapment was easy to achieve. Walking in view of HOME's restaurant-diners threatens to break the spell . However, the sense of claustrophobia is achieved by taking us to the backstage areas of HOME, we would normally never see.
In the storeroom Gurjeet Singh is a shopworker, recounting, with increasing intensity, his experience on the day (presumably based on one of the testimonies ANU productions heard when researching On Corporation Street). It is the small details which hit home the hardest, not least when he tells us that 'birds rained down from the sky, already dead'.
I was particularly impressed by the humanity of Úna Kavanagh's portrayal of a nurse, shifting from nervous shock to relief and affection, as she struggles to make sense of what has happened and what it means to her as an Irishwoman in the bombed city.
The most surreal, yet hauntingly poignant scene which the group I'm part of experience, takes place in a room full of dead birds and mannequins with broken arms. It's like a strange kind of mortuary or tomb of what might have been - in the blast from which, famously, no one died. In the eerie light a woman (Amanda Coogan) dressed in white starts dancing, as if trying to free herself of her veil. Is this a Miss Haversham figure, a widow or a forgotten victim of the explosion? We can't tell and she's not saying anything. But given that we can hear the howls of what sounds like someone being tortured from an adjoining room, it feels safer amongst the mannequins and the dancing lady.
In the next room, Sonia Hughes has a natural and easy rapport with us - always an advantage for an actor in recruited by ANU productions. She asks me how long we should wait as a collection of confiscated keys hang from the ceiling, like wind chimes.
HOME is a centre for visual arts, theatre and film and On Corporation Street employs all three to make its impact. The overall experience is more fractured than a three act play, and it follows more of a dream - or nightmare - logic than a traditional form of storytelling. Each small audience-group takes one of several routes around the building. But then again, bewilderment and disorientation must have been what people in the city centre felt on 15th June 1996.
We're left with the impression of a group of disparate lives brought together in a flash of white light, like a photograph of a city street on any random summer Saturday. In a similar way, our small groups are strangers brought together by the date and time on our tickets, glancing at each other in case someone knows what's pretend and what's real and where we go next.